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Citizens on Watch: Photo Essay and Q & with Joan Liftin

Of course, the reason we wrestle with the conflicts of diversity is because America is the final destination in the imagination of so many people, from so many places. We're descended from so many refugees, exiles, immigrants, sojourners, wanderers, squatters, dreamers and schemers that the great melting pot was bound to become a boiling cauldron. Take a look at the largest community of Haitians in the country, in the town of Delray Beach, a couple of hours north of Miami. They came for opportunity...

Photographer Joan Liftin documents the Haitian community in a Photo Essay. You can add your own caption to one of her photos: Photo of the Week

Joan Liftin
Joan Liftin

Photo Essay

Joan Liftin describes the Indivisible Project

The Indivisible Project was funded by the Pew Foundation for 12 photographers and oral historians to do takes on 12 American communities across the country, Alaska, Florida, Texas... And the idea was during the year 2000 to show a cross section of American volunteerism which was communities that had strong pushes from the people in the community themselves to do something of a volunteer effort.

Liftin's chosen community was the Haitian enclave in Delray Beach, Florida.

Each of us was chosen for a different community because perhaps there was some relationship beforehand or there was some particular interest. I had worked previously for the UN and had been sent about 5 or 6 times to Haiti so I was familiar with Haitian culture and I was also just personally very sympathetic to it.

What is it about the Haitian culture that connected with you?

I love the Haitians. They're very dynamic. They're very creative. They're funny. In spite of such a terrible history of the country, I found Haitians one of the most gentle people I've ever seen. I'm very comfortable with them.

Liftin describes the life of Delray Beach.

It's a town that's in Palm Beach county. It's right off the interstate and it's just slightly north of Palm Beach and in the early 1990s, Delray was an incredible drug town. Things got so bad that about 3 or 4 years later, maybe about '94, the people of the town began to really rise up in disgust. And a whole new police department, police chief were put into power. And fortunately for Delray, there was a real desire to change what had been going on. Town had been devastated. One of the things they did - Delray is a town that basically has 3 kinds of populations. More than half the town is white. Some of whom are retired people.

And about 20 percent or 25 percent are Haitians and about 25 percent are African-Americans. Delray's also the community that has the highest percentage of Haitian Americans in the country.

Liftin describes the special nature of the Haitian community.

The Haitian community comes from an island where they have been crushed basically. Just crushed by corrupt regimes — and often by the police themselves. So the Haitians had no interest in helping the police.They distrusted authority, they distrusted the police.

I got very interested in photographing the community. Which again had a difficulty because there's a certain number of Haitians in any community who are illegal. And Delray because of its placement near Miami but not too close, was a favorite debarkation point for smuggled boats from Haiti.

How did they begin the community police patrols?

The first effort was made with having volunteers, mostly white, give out parking tickets throughout the town. Everybody in a beach town is always parking in the wrong spot. And this helped the budget of Delray and it also freed up the police to do other things like start concentrating on drugs and violence in the community. Later, police patrols were organized by the police department. That was volunteer people who drove around watching for burglaries, arguments, fights, any kind of mayhem that was happening.

"Indivisible: Stories of American Community" is a project of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University in partnership with the Center for Creative Photography, The University of Arizona, and is funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts."

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